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Motor-ethics

| 16 September 1998

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I am not a moralist
— Paul Virilio

 

‘The real problem is: what kind of life?’, states Paul Virilio in conversation with Sylvère Lotringer in the remarkable Pure War.1 Ethics is nearly always grounded in two elements: discourse and space. For example, take Habermas and the public sphere of speech. Alternatively Foucault, and technologies of the self. Each is spatial — perhaps more obviously so the former (which is not in any way to say the latter is less ethical). As an ethics of the body, or the soul, or the social, each is marked, if not by a territory then a place (however transitory, however impossible). Certainly if we think of ethics’ own object, it’s clear that at issue is being “here in the world”. Even the ethics of alterity (the encounter), is essentially spatial: a kind of “positioning” (a concern with distance and proximity, a kind of ‘shifting’) through which we establish our perceptual reality; which is to say, our perception of where we are and might be in the world. Yet lived reality — at least until recently — dictated that this “being here” was also a “being now”, in other words, rooted in, and tied to, a certain temporality (the body that is marked, the soul that remembers, the social that transforms, the organism that lives). So what would seem hidden from the very beginning in our ethical thinking has been, in addition to discourse and space, the fundamental irreducibility of time.Yet what can we think when we find ourselves in a culture where being here and now is no longer a given; where the space of our real lives is decaying and “passing”? Where our worst problems are not borderlines but the vectors that obliterate them. Where automaticity (momentum), exhaustion (interconnection), disappearance (proliferation) reign absolute.2 We’re struck by illusions and unable to engage. Territory, sovereignty, location, Law: that power has a form, a place that it invests in. But what would the world look like if we suddenly discovered that all of our investigations of practice and truth turned out to be bound to a certain corporeality — a metaphysics of space — which itself had disappeared when we weren’t looking? That is to say, if space were simply not there as such; if indeed the very soil beneath our feet–as Foucault famously argued — had already become mobile, shifting and drifting, and turning itself over in spite of our presence. In short, what if the temporal supplanted the spatial, not as a replacement of the actually physical, but the durational, or expansive part of our social existence (the pace of public life overtaking the place of public existence)? What kind of crisis might arise in our thinking: about politics, the city, the self, the Other, in our strategies and our tactics, in our ethical systems, if all of a sudden we were to find our world absent, and were faced with a politics of some other dimension, perhaps time?

I

4 propositions, 4 accusations:

1) Everything spatial in our culture is undergoing a process of mass irradiation. From the first telegraphics of the Napoleonic wars to the railroad, the airplane, the launch of the satellite: the physical duration of the world has been, and is being, obliterated in the invisible war of Marinetti’s straight line.3 Since the age of Alexander space became first and foremost a temporal value (the time taken to eradicate distance), made permanent since the Quattrocento and the mapping of the world via linear perspective.4 It’s clear we find a threshold in birthplace of modernity5 of which electromagnetics, now opto-electronics are but a hyperrealization. In short, geography is history.6

2) It seems clear, from at least a certain critical viewpoint, that public power, or the question of hegemony (let’s say ‘discipline’), has adjusted to the birth of these new technologies. If we look back at the Classical age we find an age of enclosure: spaces matter, buildings appear. With the take-off of modernity we see a reversal of the tendency: a project emerge for the deterritorialization of power. Power would be passed into the souls of individuals (carried in their bodies, their gestures, their disposition, their readiness). Now we find a third transformation, with the end of the project of mass mobilization. Where once it was a question of holding form suspended, becoming, in turn, one of constituting rhythm, now we find a tendency toward the depletion of horizon; a kind of inertia borne out of the instantaneity of movement.7 It is my argument at least, that this transformation of political technique cannot be separated from the basic State project of the organization of bodies, of aptitudes and lives.

3) It seems clear that we are passing into a period of a profound crisis in identity: just, of course, as identities begin to reassert themselves more clearly. The essential phenomenon is the obliteration of alterity (that we might suggest in itself is of course an age old State project). In the words of Jean Baudrillard, ‘Our society is entirely dedicated to neutralizing otherness, to destroying the other as a natural point of reference in a vast flood of aseptic communication and interaction, of illusory exchange and contact.’8 The effacement of the Other through the proliferation of media — the radical multiplication, indeed production, of difference — demands we reassess the temporality of identity. Again what we’re seeing is a shift in the tendency. It’s not that spaces are unimportant, but acceleration, diffusion, fragmentation, dispersion takes command. If effacement and transidentification were counter-strategies of identity in age of spaces9, they no longer can be when asylums become empty. As an aside, it would be interesting at this point to discuss French cultural politics — by which I mean the experience from about ‘58 to ‘78 — but we’re probably too close to the death of Foucault to be able to do so. Nonetheless, I wonder if we’d find in the experience of his stand against power, a whole series of lessons, tactical and political, that would help us come to terms with these new technologies of time, and their effect on our lives.

4) We must come to terms with what Virilio has termed the ‘disappearance aesthetic’. When the politics of motion becomes a ‘movement of movement’ we move into an age of cinematography. We lose persistence; the characteristic of the aesthetics of appearance. As Virilio writes, ‘persistence [becomes] retinal, it is persistence of memory, of the mental image’.10 From the general effect, we can identify at a broad level at least three disappearances: that of subjectivity, objectivity, and history. Think of the first this way. If Foucault was concerned with the passing of ‘life into history’ (where life became a object of political intervention), Virilio is concerned with the passing of ‘history into life’, by which we might understand, the fundamental ways in which over the last 2/300 years, life has become ‘automatic’. Essentially ‘displaced’ we’re no more than ‘passengers in transit’.11 For Virilio what we are talking about is nothing less than the ‘total, unavowed disqualification of the human in favour of the definitive instrumental conditioning of the individual’.12 ‘All of us’, he writes, ‘are already civilian soldiers’.13

In terms of objectivity we might understand the loss of the world as horizon, or obstacle. In Virilio’s terms, dromocratic rationality has ‘ceaselessly distanced us’ from what we’ve taken to be the ‘objective world’: ‘the rapid tour, the accelerated transport of people, signs or things, reproduce .. the effects of picnolepsy [a kind of momentary sleep, with effects of amnesia], since they provoke a perpetually repeated hijacking of the subject from any spatial-temporal context.’14 When perceptual mobility catches up with electromagnetics, we find ourselves facing, ‘the unheard-of situation of the interchangeability of places’.15 So along with the “where-and-when?” of the disappearing subject we find shifts in all directions of actual objects! ‘It is this intervention’, writes Virilio, ‘which destroys the world as we know it.’16

Finally, in terms of history, what is at stake is ‘History as extensiveness — of time that lasts’. With technologies of instaneity the event wins out, the end of duration marking the advent of ubiquity and the rise of ‘transpolitics’: what Virilio calls, ‘a final oblivion of matter and of own presence in the world.’17 ‘Democracy, consultation, the basis of politics requires time’, he writes. ‘Duration is the proper of man; he is inscribed within it.’18 With the disappearance of duration disappears ‘all finalities, all referentials, all meanings’.19 Taken together, these three disappearances mark what Virilio calls the ‘primal accident’, whereby human society is defeated by exhaustion, a universal peace borne of absolute acceleration.20

II

‘Europe, wrote Napoleon, ‘will never be tranquil until natural limits are restored’.21 Prophesy indeed as Virilio would have it in his book Inertie Polaire, and more recently Open Sky.22 No longer now the genealogy of that general displacement of peoples, indeed whole societies, under forward motion of industrial speed. Now, even more daringly, Virilio warns us of an oncoming confinement — indeed a perfect tranquillity — as a result of the restoration of natural limits; or more precisely, the final realization of that fascination with speed that is for him the unwritten law of Occidental modernity. The “speed of liberation”, as we’re fast finding out, is not quite the field of dreams we were told it would be. On the contrary, along with these multiple disappearances, the ‘universal dromos’ is now actually incarcerating us. Discontent to destroy dimension we’re now set on eradicating duration; the two in their absence defining the ‘no-place’ of light-speed existence (virtuality, cyberspace, cyberpace). From a culture of imperial geophysics (the politics of territory, its regularization and mapping) we pass into the ‘state of emergency’ of chronographics (ubiquity, immediacy, information intensity); all of us passive witnesses to the radical recasting of governance and citizenship alike.

This passivity is, for Virilio, latent within information technology. Now that everything arrives on the screen without the incumbent having even to leave, only the control of the real instant will remain; an illusive control that we have already passed over to the domain of sensors, captors and various microprocessing interfaces (DataGlove, DataSuit, trackpad and so on) allowing us to “meet at a distance” (telepresence); indeed, see, hear and feel at a distance (television, teleaudition, tele-tactition). This new generalized remote control, made possible by electromagnetic, and now optoelectronic communications, is revolutionizing — argues Virilio — man’s relation to himself, to others, to technology, to politics, and most particularly to the planet. Where the last century’s revolution in transportation gave rise to an era of generalized mobility, our own tools of instantaneous transmission are reversing the tendency. With the dissolution of the scale of our human environment (prefigured by the telescope and radicalized by the satellite), the very reality of the world is reduced to nil (or next to nothing), leading inevitably to a ‘catastrophic sense of incarceration now that humanity is literally deprived of horizon.’23 Having lost our sense of the journey in the commutation of space during the industrial age, we now lose departure in the age of electromagnetics and the speed of light.

‘Behavioural inertia’ sets in. A rigor mortis all-too-evident in the soon-to-be-ideal ‘terminal-citizen’; ‘decked out to the eyeballs with interactive prostheses based on the pathological model of the ‘spastic’, wired to control his or her domestic environment without having physically to stir.’24 In obliterating space, this ‘armchair navigator’25 replicates the experience of the astronaut in breaking through the vertical littoral of universal attraction – poking a hole through the sky – only to find that ‘beyond Earth’s pull there is no space worthy of the name, but only time’; a universal inert time patently self-evident to the passengers of Apollo 11, landing on the lunar region named so aptly thereafter, Tranquillity Base.26 Back here on Earth, optoelectronics, having restored natural limits by exhausting all possible forward acceleration (nothing, we are reminded, moves faster than light), will indeed have secured, as Napoleon predicted, a kind of brutal tranquillity. Walled-in at home with our various interactive apparatuses – a veritable life-support system – and soon even an ‘electroergonomic double’ (the Datasuit, our virtual alter ego), we find ourselves the unwitting victims of a domestic enslavement identical to that of the para- or quadriplegic.27 Our only salvation is to be found in illusion, in ‘flight from the reality of the moment’.28 The circle is squared. A perfect panopticism where the inmate runs to the prison guard for protection against the institution within which he finds himself!

A radical dislocation, indeed physical removal from the space of politics and political existence. An individualism, as Virilio suggests, that has ‘little to do with a liberation of values.’29 No one, of course, is informed in advance of this informational downside, nor of the immediate physiological pathology of having ‘everything within one’s reach’: the surreptitious obsolescence rendered on the body (in particular the muscles, but soon also memory and consciousness) through the proliferation of ‘remote control’. Much of Virilio’s recent work is in fact devoted to this very question; the revolution that follows that of transportation and transmission (bear in mind that we’ve scarcely come to terms with either of these, especially the latter). This ‘third revolution’ — that of transplantation — is, for Virilio, a natural consequence of the commutation of real space and the universalization of real time associated with the proliferation of transportation and transmission technologies respectively. Reductionism and miniaturization take over where networking and urbanization left off; mechanical communication supplanted by ‘electromagnetic proximity’.

The profound nature of this inversion is, for Virilio, seen best in the microphysical invasion of our very bodies by the ‘nanomachines’ of biotechnology. This invasion – of all kinds of stimulators, grafts and implants – is reversing, he argues, the very principle that has hitherto determined the social history of technology. Instead now of inhabiting machinery (the motor car, the elevator, the moving walkway, etc.) for the sake of conserving one’s own energy (what Virilio calls ‘the law of least effort’), now – in the age of telepresence – it is energy that instantaneously inhabits and governs us.30 The ‘tragedy of the fusion of the “biological” and the “technological”’31, is thus that we lose – potentially – the very being of intentionality.32

III

What Virilio proposes in response to all this–to the desertification of the world’s surface (inherently dematerializing duration); to the inertia-point of collision with real-time (entailing not only behavioural immobilism but the end of history itself); to the inward turn of technology on the human organism, not to mention the virtualization of perception and the frightful thought of not only acting at a distance but now even loving at a distance (cybersex)–is a radical new ecology and defense of perception. New, for as Virilio sees it, environmentalism has consistently failed to question the ‘man-machine dialogue’, and most especially the birth of machinic temporality.

By way of a corrective, Virilio asks that we engage the event at the speed it occurs; bringing forth not only a ‘true sociology’ of interactivity, but a ‘public dromology’ of the pace of public life (p. 23).  A ‘grey ecology’ (as ‘speed destroys colour’) would no longer deny the pollution of the ‘life-size’ or ‘scope’ of the planet by our various tools of technological proximity. On the other hand, an ‘ecology of images’ would mark a ‘conscientious objection’ to the hold of the public image by photo-cinematographic and video-infographic ‘seeing machines’. For with the speed of light we are not only talking of the de-location of the event (the confusion of here and there, now and then), but also a radical visual distortion of the event. As Virilio reminds us, until our own century man’s perception of existence – of time and space, the Earth in its detail – was bound to universal gravitation: precisely the force by which we measure the world, seeing with our own eyes the near and the far, the high and the low, depth and perspective, dimension and position. A defense of perception engaging the event necessarily would question the ‘immediacy’ of an image whose speed far outstrips the ‘escape velocity’ hitherto necessary to launch a vehicle off the Earth and into the stratosphere (now infosphere); breaking open the sky, stripping all weight (and meaning), a radical ‘flattening’ of reality and perception.

Coming back to our three disappearances we find also three ethics. An ethic of presence (of being-here-and-now-in-the-world); and ethic of permanence (a defense of the world’s being here-and-now); and an ethic of proximity (accepting the negative, the accident, the ‘being no longer’ that is the other side of History). All of these are interconnected. In terms of presence, akin to Levinas, Virilio’s conceives existence as ‘resisting the moment of arrival.’ Similar also to Levinas Virilio ends up arguing for a reimagination and revalidation of the space of the social; a proximity that is also “distant” in its reimagination of expanse and extension. Also there is the question of disappearance and what we identifed earlier as the historicization of life. This is not in contradiction to the rise of the event, rather life becomes more historical the more history itself passes. The historicization of life becomes a question of the pollution of life’s presence. As Virilio argues, ‘Life is generally identified with biographical duration, a history – but a micro-history, that of an individual from birth to death. Can we imagine life otherwise? Isn’t life also a matter of intensity?’ Being-here-and-now-in-the-world therefore takes on a kind of translucence: epitomized, if correctly read, by Virilio’s statement that, ‘Man is the closing point of the marvels of the universe.’33

It is upon permanence that Virilio mounts his defense of habitat: the integrity of the world against ‘military intelligence’. Here it is not technology itself which is the demon, but rather the ways in which technology morphs into dromology, and polluting as it does so the ‘life-size’ of the planet. ‘All changes’, wrote Emerson, ‘pass without violence by reason of the two cardinal conditions of boundless space and boundless time’. Virilio’s here to say we face an ultimate violence. Virilio defense is of the inertia of the world (e.g., gravitation, topology, the barrier of sound, etc.). In denying ‘animal man’ the rationality of defeating the world, an ethic of permanence delinks man’s status as mere ‘standing reserve’, insofar as he and the world become yet again obstacles to technology.34 Quoting the words of Saint-Exupery, ‘The Earth teaches us a lot more about ourselves than all the books in the world, because it resists us. Man only finds himself when he measures himself against an obstacle.’35

Finally it is upon proximity that Virilio mounts a counter-stance to the passing of life into history. But here is distinguished the virtual and actual, for the proximity in mind is obviously that of the city; not the illusory proximity of ‘virtual communities’. A second meaning to proximity is proximity to the interruption, or the accident: which as careful readers know, has a dual life in his writings. Here the accident in mind is that of the final interruption of dying, which for Virilio becomes key to a philosophy or ethic of socially living. As Virilio notes, ‘If we’re conscious, it’s because we’re mortal. Death and consciousness are allied’. When ‘in the end, unconsciousness is the aim of Pure War’, by which Virilio means the dromological horizon of our militarized societies, recapturing sociality (he even says ‘Being’) is really a question of recapturing the question of death.36 Hence dealing with the negative of History allows Virilio to reject the privatization of virtuality (by which I don’t just mean computers, but the virtual existence of modern society), and return — or seek a return — to the real space of the city, with it’s presence, it’s meeting points, it’s essential vitality.37

Taken together Virilio’s grey ecology, ‘hyper-vigilance regarding immediate perception’, as well as ethics of presence, permanence and proximity, constitute a bold reaffirmation not only the life of the planet, but our own lives, our memories, the anima of our souls; everything that distinguishes us from mere automata. The right not to be rushed. The right to find distances–the true measure of the world–in one’s own heart. The right to screen-out motorized appearances, to affirm one’s freedom of perception and imagination. The right to protect the meaning of our immediate environment, our loved ones, the very bodies around us, from the stream of sequences rendering reality less than relative, if not irrelevant by optoelectronic fetishism.38 The right to say no to the Pure War of generalized amnesia, fast taking us out of cities and secluding us in our homes. Ultimately, Virilio’s concern is with a politics that is not so virtual. The ‘ecological’ merges with the theological: the defense of the planet–its essential enigma–a means to recapture our humanity by way of the very weight of our bodies. With nothing beyond man, we are left only with practicalities; of what we can do, can try to invent: systems of movement, ethics of rhythm, critical dynamism, democratic speeds that find reason between the extremes of immediacy and inertia.

This paper was written for and presented at the 3rd Pan-European International Relations Conference and Joint Meeting of the International Studies Association, Vienna, Austria, 16-19 September 1998.
  1. Paul Virilio and Sylvère Lotringer, Pure War, (New York: Semiotext(e), 1997), p. 135.
  2. cf. Jean Baudrillard, Paroxyism, (London: Verso, 1998).
  3. of course a reference to the Italian Futurist’s declaration that speed gives to human life a characteristic of ‘divinity’. See: Futurist Manifesto, L’Italia Futurista, 11 May 1916.
  4. the Ptolemaic revolution; an ocular one, prefiguring what would follow with satellites and space flight …
  5. 1650-1850, with the real ‘take-off’, or ‘realization period’ being 1780-1830.
  6. British Telecom marketing, 1997.
  7. for those that protest, Paul Virilio, makes the point–quoting from Saint Just–that the actual is not opposed to the virtual: ‘If the people can be oppressed, even if they are not actually oppressed, then they are oppressed already.’ unpublished interview with John Armitage, 1997.  (c.f., Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonianism, (New York: Zone Books, 1991), pp. 96-7).
  8. cf., Jean Baudrillard, Transparency of Evil, (London: Verso, 1996), p. *.
  9. Michel Foucault, ‘Different Spaces’, in Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology: The Essential Works of Michel Foucault, Volume II, (New York: The Free Press, 1997), pp. 175-85.
  10. Paul Virilio, ‘Gravitational Space’, in Laurence Louppe (ed.), Traces of Dance, (Paris: Éditions dis voir, 1994), p. 59.
  11. Paul Virilio, Pure War, (New York: Semiotext(e), 1997), p. 67.
  12. Paul Virilio, The Art of the Motor, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), p. 135.
  13. Paul Virilio, Pure War, p. 26.
  14. Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, (New York, Semiotext(e), 1991), p. 101.
  15. Paul Virilio, Pure War, p. 65.
  16. Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, p. 101.
  17. Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, p. 111.
  18. Paul Virilio, Pure War, p. 34.
  19. Jean Baudrillard, Transparency of Evil, p. 153.
  20. Paul Virilio, Popular Defense and Ecological Struggles,  (New York, Semiotext(e), 1990), p. 32.
  21. Jules Bertaut, Napoleon in His Own Words, (Chicago, A.C.McClurg, 1991), p. 135.
  22. To date Inertia Polaire has only been translated in part. A full translation is preparation for Sage. In the meantime, cf., James Der Derian (ed.), The Virilio Reader, (London: Blackwells, 1998), pp. 117-133.
  23. Paul Virilio, Open Sky, (London: Verso, 1997), p. 41.
  24. ibid, p. 20.
  25. ibid, p. 124.
  26. ibid, p. 3.
  27. ibid, p. 16.
  28. Paul Virilio, The Art of the Motor, p. 132.
  29. Paul Virilio, Open Sky, p. 11.
  30. ibid, p. 54.
  31. ibid, p. 57.
  32. we shouldn’t forget that such ‘self-reproducing automata’ were the very dream of cybernetics in the first place. That indeed ‘cybernetics’ means literally the art of governing. And hasn’t the idea of ‘zero-intelligence’ not gained a certain currency in mainstream economics? (c.f., John Von Neumann, Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata, (University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1966), and D. Gode and S. Sunder, ‘Allocative Efficiency of Markets with Zero-Intelligence Agents’, Journal of Political Economy, (101), 1993, pp. 119-137).
  33. St. Hildegarde, ‘Homo Est Clausura Mirabilum Dei’.
  34. in the Heideggerian sense of ‘technic’.  See Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays, (New York: Garland Publishers, 1977).
  35. Paul Virilio, Open Sky, p. 119.
  36. Paul Virilio, Pure War, p. 121-2. ‘Death isn’t sad, it’s Being itself .. let’s re-examine our status as mortal beings and we’ll again be able to oppose Pure War’.
  37. I’m reminded of a quip of Jean Baudrillard: “Popular fame is what we should aspire to. Nothing will ever match the distracted gaze of the woman serving in the butcher’s who has seen you on television.”  Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories, (London: Verso, 1990), p. 23.
  38. Paul Virilio, Open Sky, p. 90.
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We negate and we must negate because something in us wants to live and affirm — Friedrich Nietzsche